Traveling exhibit shares history of Alaska quilts

Women of the cloth

Posted: Thursday, February 07, 2002

When the term "art" is spoken of, several forms usually come to mind, like painting, drawing, sculpting, music and theater. Until fairly recently, one art form has been largely unrecognized as such.

Art shows like the one on display at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center in Kenai are working to reverse that oversight and establish the cultural, historic and artistic significance of the textile medium.

"Quilts of Alaska: A Textile Album of the Last Frontier" is the result of a survey conducted by the Alaska Museum in Juneau. The museum searched for heirloom and antique quilts in the state and researched their histories. Just like the quilters pieced together bits of fabric to make their creations, researchers were able to piece together stories from the quilts about their makers and how the quilts came to be in Alaska.

Most of the quilts in the traveling display were made around the turn of the century by women in other areas of the country. The quilts were brought to Alaska as cherished heirlooms by relatives or descendants of the makers. Some contained familiar fabrics from old clothes or familiar patterns that bound families together across the miles and generations.

"Log Cabin," a cotton, wool and silk quilt made by Helena Smith Sharp in Montana in the late 1800s, was brought to Alaska by family members who came for the gold rush. The quilt was made from several colors and textures of fabrics pieced together in squares. It is easy to believe the quilt kept its owners warm as they traveled the Chilkoot Trail and Pass in 1898 as it is faded and has obviously seen much use.

Several colors and patterns of fabrics were used in the quilt,


"Fruit Basket," a cotton quilt made by Mary Rose (Bright) St. Clair of Oregon in 1932

though they are rough-looking and plain. But what the quilt lacks in pizzazz, it more than makes up for in solid construction, utility and a sense of hominess.

"Tumbling Block" is a much more extravagant piece, created just after the turn of the century by Flora Cecilia (Rhodes) Corbin, most likely while she was living in Montana. The quilt contains numerous vibrant and shiny silk pieces, offset with horizontal rows of diamond-shaped black velvet pieces embroidered with flowers. Corbin, who was originally from Wisconsin, married William Perry Corbin and moved with him from Illinois to homestead in Montana in 1924. The couple had several children. One of whom, Wilma Mason, moved to Wrangell in 1924.

Corbin was a prolific quilter and also did watercolor floral paintings, which explains the detail in the embroidered flowers. Mason inherited the "Tumbling Block" quilt, a hexagonal-patterned quilt using floral fabrics called "Garden Path" (also included in the "Quilts of Alaska" show), and several others from her mother. Mason's son Ken in turn inherited the quilts from her and included them in the Discovery Days festival in Wrangell. Before their inclusion in the "Quilts of Alaska" show, the quilts were on display at the Wrangell Museum.

Continuing the floral theme is "Endless Chain," which was made in the 1940s by Mrs. Bottemuelle, a Missouri housewife of German decent. The quilt achieves an unusual watercolor effect. A pattern of white, interconnected daisies float on a background of multi-colored pastel hues and is bordered by pale peach material.

Much less subdued is "Pennant," a quilt made of boldly-colored wool felt pennants representing various towns, organizations, high schools and colleges. The quilt was made by Jennie Hahn in 1936, who was born in 1875 in Seattle. She moved to Skagway in 1898 and married Karl Hahn, who surveyed for the White Pass Railroad and was superintendent of rails for 47 years. It is unknown how Hahn came by the pennants, which mostly represent Southeast Alaska, Washington and Oregon.


"Tumbling Block," a silk and velvet quilt made by Flora Cecilia (Rhodes) Corbin around 1900

The origins and histories of all the quits in the show are not known, but information about most of the quilts, their makers and how they came to Alaska can be found in the book "Quilts of Alaska: A Textile Album of the Last Frontier," put out by the Alaska Quilt Survey Gastineau Channel Historical Society in Juneau.

The book also contains information about early and Native quilt making in Alaska and can be purchased at the visitors center. Note cards with quilt designs also are on sale at the center.

"Quilts of Alaska" will be on display through March 8. The show is split between the center and the Pratt Museum in Homer, so about one-third of the quilts in the display are being shown in Homer. The Kenai center is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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